By: Rob Turville (thisisguernsey.com)
Swedish grandmaster Tiger Hillarp-Persson is after his third consecutive open victory in the MeesPierson Reads Chess Festival at the Peninsula Hotel.
‘It is not my intention to let anyone else win this year,’ he said when jokingly asked whether he may ease off and let someone else lay a hand on the trophy that has been his since he started coming here.
There may have been an element of light-heartedness in his response: it was difficult to tell. Hillarp-Persson speaks in a measured and thoughtful manner typical of a well-educated Continental European.
Tiger Hillarp-Persson considers his next move. (Picture by John O’Neill)
The 33-year-old Swede is a philosophy and political economics graduate. It seems that words are used as correctly as any Grunfeld or Benko Gambit opening: precision is everything.
There are 84 players in this year’s tournament, split almost evenly between the open and the holiday events. The toughest challenge may come from English international master Robert Bellin, another previous winner.
‘I had a very tough match against a young player last year. He was a very good player and played excellently against me. I was playing black and I had to pull a whole bunch of white rabbits out of the hat against him.’
Hillarp-Persson must enjoy his visits to the Channel Islands – he has also won three times in Jersey.
It is likely he will have played all his opponents in this event sometime before. If not, then he will very quickly learn their style of play.
‘Most top chess players have a database of all their opponents on computer. On my laptop I have about three million matches and it is possible to use Internet sites to download even more.
‘I use a programme into which I enter several parameters – for example, if my opponent is playing white, if I want all his matches for the past five years – the computer shows me all his games. I can then analyse this and decide how best to play him.
‘It is also possible to download annotated games, but I prefer not to because sometimes the person that makes the notes gets things wrong.’
Hillarp-Persson realises that not everyone can reach his exacting standards – but that is not surprising: he is in the top 300 in the world.
Involved in chess since age 13 and professional since 1996, Hillarp-Persson plays ‘as many tournaments as I want to’ each year.
So far in 2004, he has been in nine, with shared first places in two in Spain and three wins in Sweden.
‘Guernsey could easily attract more players. I am surprised that there are not more here. From Sweden it is extremely cheap to fly to London. Many more players would be interested in coming here.’
Is he the typical chess champion?
‘The “average player” varies very much from country to country. In the south of Europe at least 75% are male, very young and are mad-keen on football. In Germany and England it is often older men who play.
‘The status of the game is not very high in England. It has a much higher status in the Nordic countries and you can tell as the players have more self-confidence. In England you sometimes can play tournaments in the back rooms of hotels, but in Sweden we have first-class facilities.’
Hillarp-Persson obviously possesses a very analytical brain, but he said that such a trait is not necessarily essential to become a great chess player.
‘There are three kinds of chess player: those with a mathematical skill, those with a music skill and those with a language skill. Sometimes you get someone with two of the three, but it is very rare to find someone with all three. They make the best players.’
Fred Hamperl, one of the Guernsey players chasing the holiday prize, added: ‘It helps to have an optical appreciation of space and spare colours.’
Suddenly an image was conjured up which best described the Swede’s approach to the game.
‘It can be like pinball. It is possible in pinball to get into a loop of always hitting the ball up a ramp, down and back again and scoring so many points.
‘That can be done two ways: you can watch the ball coming towards the flipper and press the button to hit it back. That is an analytical player and he will be a very good chess player.
‘But the best player is the one who can get into a rhythm, go beyond what he can see and press the flipper button just from the feel of where the ball will be, almost with his eyes closed. He will be a great chess player.’
The Tiger also said that a very human asset would always give a person an advantage over even the most powerful of computers.
‘You can’t be too digital; computers can because they have massive processing power and can see every possible move. But humans can judge positions using intuition; you can have a “feel” for the game which computers cannot.
‘Computers will soon be able to process more data in a shorter time and they will be better than a human in a short, timed game. A grandmaster will be able to beat a computer at a proper game.
‘I always lose a five-minute game against a computer,’ said Hillarp-Persson. ‘But a human at the highest level will beat a computer at the highest level.’
Hamperl said: ‘Chess is finite in that there are only ever a set number of possible moves and outcomes, but that number is so high it seems to be infinite.’
Computers cannot be intimidated, human opponents can, said Hillarp-Persson.
That can take the form of leaning over the board, moving pieces firmly around the board, banging the time clock, even a persistent twitching of a leg.
In the case of anyone facing Hillarp-Persson, possibly even the steely stare of an ultra-confident grandmaster.